Big Al's Top 5
I am compelled to preface this post with the fact that I am in physical pain having to leave some of the dearest, best, funniest, most genius shows the world has ever known off this list. (I compensated by including recommendations for other shows that are also my favorites.) I guess it’s my own damn fault I’ve watched so much good TV. But here we go. I’ll write about all of those other shows some time soon. Also sorry three of mine overlap with Annie’s, but that goes a long way toward explaining why we are so N*SYNC.
The Office (NBC, nine seasons, 2005-2013, started watching 2007)
This is The Show for me. The O.G. (prima donna). Growing up, I held onto the idea that all “adult” books, music, movies, and TV were inherently boring for a very long time, and my parents had pretty strict rules about what and how much tv we could watch. So it wasn’t until 10th grade that I sat down with my mom and dad, out of curiosity, for their regular Thursday night programming – The Office and 30 Rock. To say those shows blew my mind is an understatement. To say that that was the night my life truly began is accurate. I started watching The Office religiously every week, and in order to catch up on the first three seasons that had already aired, I quickly became an expert in searching for sketchy streaming links and watched almost all of the first three seasons with Chinese subtitles because that was what the world was like back then.
Sarcastic from an early age, this was the very first piece of media I found that reflected what I naturally found funny back to me. (The only experience I've had that that can compare is watching Blades of Glory in the theater with friends from my youth group when I was in 9th grade.) After many too many years watching the Disney Channel, it was a feast of dry humor, nuanced comedic performances, and rich emotional storylines. While I will, BEGRUDGINGLY, concede that the seasons after Jim and Pam get together and Michael Scott leaves aren’t AS good as the seasons prior, I will never stop wanting to hit anyone who says the later seasons were bad. They weren’t. They’re hilarious and incredible. It’s not their fault they’re being compared to the GREATEST EPISODES OF COMEDIC TELEVISION OF ALL TIME. This is the show that lives in my head. I think in Office quotes, and will never find love, because Jim Halpert ruined me. I fall asleep to old episodes like they’re lullabies.
If you like The Office, watch: Party Down, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Burning Love
The West Wing (NBC, seven seasons, 1999-2006, starting watching 2014)
This show is a symphony. Believe it or not, it was the very first drama that I ever watched (note: this was in 2014). Before it, I thought that watching something that wouldn’t make you laugh was a waste of time. But, the summer after I graduated college, the only friend of mine who was also at home for those few months gently insisted we watch The West Wing. I will never be able to repay her. A few days a week, after boring, stressful days of lifeguarding and job searching, we would get together, make tea, and watch one episode at a time. It would have been delightful regardless, but at a time when I was lost and stuck, it was an especially potent and necessary reminder of purpose and idealism and dedication. It reminded me to foster ambition in myself. Much has been said of its writing, of the dialogue. Yes, congratulations Mr. Sorkin, you’re a genius. But the reason that it is rare, still, that 48 hours pass without me watching at least part of an episode while I’m getting ready for work or falling asleep at night or washing dishes is because it is about people who care, deeply, about their work, who push each other to do they very best they can for the people they serve. It is an ode to public service. It is absent cynicism. It is powerful and unabashed and earnest and sincere. It moves me, in the direction I want to go.
And, it is funny. CJ after the dentist, Sam in "Celestial Navigation," Josh trying to explain any of his behavior to Toby, President Bartlet on his back medication.
If you like The West Wing, watch: The Good Wife, The Good Fight, depending on your moodThe Newsroom. Or just keep rewatching WW forever because nothing will ever live up to it. I’ve heard there’s a really good Danish show that’s kind of like it, maybe look into that?
Parks and Recreation (NBC, seven seasons, 2009-2015, started watching 2013)
An ensemble comedy about public service. Holy shit. Does that not sound like my two favorite shows had a child? They did, and it scored an 2400 on the SAT and got voted senior class president. It’s perfect. It’s Leslie Knope.
I’m trying to think of something to say besides what Annie did, because I also agree that the heart and soul and spirit of this show is Leslie Knope, queen of my heart and guide of my life. There is no character that I refer to the way I do her – consistently, in my real life, I ask myself, “What would Leslie do?” and the answer is always, ALWAYS, “do your best, then try harder, and make presents for the people you love so that they know how much you love them.”
I also stake that Parks and Rec has The Best Ensemble of Any Sitcom in the World* (*That I Have Seen). Every single damn character in Pawnee has a voice as clear as a bell and is performed to perfection. It’s hard to remember now, after so, SO many rewatches, but most of these characters were people we had never seen before on TV, especially Ron, Tom, Donna, April, Chris, Jean-Ralphio, PERD. My sister tied me to our couch and glued my eyes open a few years ago because I hadn’t seen it (I was hanging onto the stupid belief that Parks was a subpar version of The Office and not worth watching), and now I owe her everything. She carefully picked the first episode we’d watch (Season 3, Episode 1, “because you need to see it with Ben and Chris”) and after she went to sleep, I went to my room to keep watching and never stopped. Once Chris looks into the mirror and orders himself to “Stop. Pooping.” (S3E2) I was utterly, completely sold. Most of the writers of this show are my favorite comedians writ large. And if all that wasn’t enough, Ben and Leslie are the best TV couple ever to air. I love this show and I like this show.
If you like Parks, watch: The Good Place, Brooklyn 99, Younger, Happy Endings, Playing House,
Broad City (Comedy Central, four seasons (so far), 2014-current, started watching 2014)
This fucking show. I’ve been dying trying to capture how meaningful and important some of these other shows are to me, but with Broad City, it doesn’t feel so hard. It’s not a complicated show, it’s just the absolute best – funnier and more fun to watch than anything out there. And never before has there been a show created and fronted by two women my age who are as dedicated to, in order – each other, having as much fun as possible, and not giving a fuck about anything else. Abbi and Ilana the people (and executive producer Amy Poehler!) are opening doors for female comedic representation and creators, and Abbi and Ilana the characters are making me laugh in every single scene, which is a true gift and a pleasure.
If you like Broad City, watch: Veep, Shrink, Time Traveling Bong, Saturday Night Live, Portlandia, Silicon Valley, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Transparent (Amazon, four seasons (so far), 2014 – current, started watching 2016)
I was going include Girls on this list, but couldn’t handle Broad City being left off. So, a shout out to Girls here – it was the first show I watched with unlikable characters, and it taught me that empathy doesn’t need to be, and furthermore shouldn’t be, reserved only for those we like. It did such a good job of that, that I didn’t even realize that many/most/depending on who you talk to, all of the main characters in Transparent could be considered “unlikable.” I, like a sane, healthy person, watch all important television by myself, and so it wasn’t until I started talking about it with other people that I heard this take. I was genuinely surprised, because none of them had seemed unlikable to me.But as I rewatched (and rewatched and rewatched) Seasons 1 and 2, and then watched Season 3, I saw that the characters do regularly disregard each others’ boundaries and wishes, fail to take responsibility for their actions, and act primarily in service of their own self-interest.
But what made those qualities hard for me to spot is the empathy central to Transparent's DNA - this is a show that has incredible compassion for its own characters. It understands that they are products of their upbringing, history, and context. It doesn't cede the importance of individual agency, but neither does it abandon the belief that we are also what happens to us, which is something that we can’t control. This doesn’t excuse the burden of personal responsibility, or pardon the characters’ behavior when they are (frequently) hurtful, but it does asks for a much more rigorous process of consideration. Judgements can’t stick quite as firmly in this show as they often do in the outside world. They’re like those sticky hands I used to get as party favors when I was younger. You can throw one of them against the wall, but it always slowly comes unstuck until it falls off the wall entirely.
In the end, what it comes down to, is – this show fucks me up. Watching it is like stepping into a bath filled with emotions – both the characters’ and your own. The intensity of this is cushioned by the overall dreaminess of the atmosphere, and you're left with the impression that feeling, in and of itself, is meaningful. After I watch it, my head and my heart are in a different place than they were before, and that is a gift.
If you like Transparent, watch: I Love Dick, You’re the Worst, Fleabag, Big Little Lies, Scrotal Recall*, Broadchurch, Orange is the New Black. What an odd collection of shows, but I stand by it. *(This might sound insane, but it’s a real suggestion. Also it’s called “Lovesick” now, which sucks.)